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The raw material of exploitation: Harry Braverman's 'Labor and Monopoly Capital'

For more by Doug Enaa Greene.

By Doug Enaa Greene

August 26, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Work sucks. Every day, workers go into jobs they hate, whether in a factory, office or on a checkout line. Workers are made to perform menial and demeaning tasks that have already been outlined for them, down to the smallest details, by management. Their job is so simple that anyone can do it. Ultimately, the worker possesses no control at the workplace.

How that situation came about and what it means for class struggle is the subject of Harry Braverman's classic work, Labor and Monopoly Capital. Braverman's book not only unveils how work is degraded under capital, but remains an important resource for how we understand capitalist society, working-class consciousness, and the class struggle today.


Harry Braverman was born on December 9, 1920. He was the son of a shoemaker, who desired an advanced education, but the hard times of the Great Depression meant that he was forced to leave college after a single year. Subsequently, Braverman worked as a craftsman in a number of trades (his experiences would later find their way into his masterwork) ranging from coppersmith to pipefitting to sheet metal work.

Braverman was not only a worker, but a journalist, Marxist and political militant, who joined multiple organizations such as the Young Socialist People's League, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist League. He also worked as an editor for the leftist Grove Press, where he was instrumental in publishing The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

In 1967 Braverman became managing director of Monthly Review Press, a non-sectarian socialist publishing house in the United States, a position he held until his death in 1976. In 1974, he authored the acclaimed book Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century.[1]

Labor and Monopoly Capital

A. Labor process and scientific management

Braverman wrote Labor and Monopoly Capital based upon his own work experiences, with the aim of looking at “the structure of the working class, and the manner in which it had changed.”[2] He did this by focusing on and developing upon Karl Marx's analyses of the processes of production, specifically changes in the labor process. Braverman studied how the capitalist class sought to control the labor process through the methods of scientific management, such as Taylorism, in order to not only control costs, but to control workers.

As a result of the application of scientific management, workers are stripped of any specialized knowledge in both their jobs and the labor process, being reduced to carrying out simplified tasks, where they are treated as interchangeable parts.

As Braverman puts it:

The capitalist mode of production systematically destroys all-around skills where they exist, and brings into being skills and occupations that correspond to its needs, Technical capacities are henceforth distributed on a strict "need to know" basis ... Every step in the labor process is divorced, so far as possible, from special knowledge and training and reduced to simple labor.[3]

The end result is that labor under capitalism is debased and a hated toil to workers, but it serves the interests of capitalists since that enables them to extract the largest surplus product from an unwilling population.

Braverman's book not only revived interest the long-neglected study of the labor process, but was a challenge to the reigning wisdom of orthodox bourgeois academics and sociologists. According to Monthly Review editor, John Bellamy Foster, Braverman provided “the first clear, critical understanding in more than a century of the labor process as a whole within capitalist society.”[4]

Before discussing the particulars of Braverman's argument, we need to clarify what he means by labor and the labor process. Braverman, who follows Marx, says that labor is essential in order for humanity to make history because people need to be able to live before they can write poetry, build skyscrapers or paint. Therefore,

life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life.[5]

Specifically, the work of humans is similar to that of animals, whether bees, spiders or beavers, in that both act upon nature in order to make it suitable for their own needs. Yet the work of humans is fundamentally different since the labor of the former is done consciously, while the latter is instinctual. Marx describes the difference as follows:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act.[6]

In other words, through the course of evolution, humans have come to labor consciously. This ability to labor, with both purpose and intelligence, is what distinguishes us from animals and makes us human. It is through human labor that civilization has emerged with art, culture, architecture, technology, clothes, literature, etc. It is through our ability to labor and create that we can truly express our humanity. Without the ability to labor, humanity would just be another animal.

Basic to the labor process, throughout all of human history, no matter the mode of production, according to Marx, are the following characteristics: “1), the personal activity of man, i.e., work itself, [as described above] 2), the subject of that work, and 3), its instruments.”[7]

The organization of the labor process and the extraction of surplus to ensure the reproduction of society has existed in different modes of production. Marx identified several modes of production: slavery, feudalism, Asiatic (or tributary) and capitalism. None of these modes of production are eternal, but are subject to different laws of motion, and the class struggle between the immediate producers and the dominant classes for control over the surplus.

In different modes of production, there is an economic base along with a political, legal, ideological superstructure. Yet the class struggle under each is not determined in advance, but can end in several ways: either the transition to a new mode of production or the common ruin of the classes. Marx does not posit a view of society where the base wholly determines the superstructure, but rather there exists a relative autonomy between the two, with the superstructure also influencing the base in a shifting and dynamic relationship with the economic determinant in the last instance.

In volume three of Das Kapital, in a much clearer manner than the more well-known Preface to a Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, Marx sums up the dynamic relationship between base and superstructure as follows:

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers — a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity — which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. This does not prevent the same economic basis — the same from the standpoint of its main conditions — due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc. from showing infinite variations and gradations in appearance, which can be ascertained only by analysis of the empirically given circumstances.[8]

In order for the capitalist mode of production, based on commodity exchange and the pursuit of profit, to take hold throughout society, three things need to occur. First: workers need to be separated from the means of production. Second, workers need to be free from the legal constraints of slavery or feudalism in order to freely sell their labor power. Last, the function of production is not for human needs, but to expand the profits available to the capitalists.[9] Thus, the worker needs a job, because without employment they will starve. The potentially infinite creative powers found in human labor is recognized by capital, which sees it as the main instrument to expand its profits. Thus, the very ability of humans to create is turned against them, serving to enrich another class, and workers are in the end alienated from our labor.

However, due to the incessant drive for capital to expand, it is imperative that it gain control over the labor process. Initially, “the capitalist utilizes labor as it comes to him from prior forms of production, carrying on labor processes as they had been carried on before.”[10] This means that under early capitalism, production was carried out not under a single workshop, but by smaller units that still used traditional methods. Craftspeople and skilled laborers maintained control over the immediate process of production and jealously guarded their skills.

In the early factories, workers were willing accomplices in their own exploitation through the “putting out” system of domestic labor, subcontracting and piece work. However, Braverman says these were not yet capitalist forms of management, since the capitalists did not have control over the labor process. Although there were different precedents for the large-scale use of labor, such as slave plantations and ancient building projects, the control of management remained rudimentary. There were efforts by early capitalists to control their workforces by regulating the hours of work in order to impose a common pace of production, fines within factories for infractions and the development all kinds of legal coercion. All of this was done in order to dominate the working class and accustom them to capitalist management.

As capitalism developed, it brought with it the creation of large factories, which employed thousands of workers. One of the major principles regulating factory life was that of the division of labor. While the division of labor is characteristic of different modes of production, whereby different productive tasks, crafts, etc. are distributed throughout society, this was taken to an extreme under capitalism. According to Braverman, the difference between the division of labor under capitalism and other modes of production was that “as against this general or social division of labor, there stands the division of labor in detail, the manufacturing division of labor. This is the breakdown of the processes involved in the making of the product into manifold operations performed by different workers.”[11] While the division of labor throughout society was enforced chaotically by the market, within the factory it was implemented through conscious planning, where the capitalists sought to break down skilled jobs to their most basic elements.

As Braverman puts it:

The capitalist mode of production systematically destroys all-around skills where they exist, and brings into being skills and occupations that correspond to its needs, Technical capacities are henceforth distributed on a strict "need to know" basis.[12]

It needs to be stressed that throughout each change in the labor process, there was resistance by the working class who refused to submit to capitalist control and were determined to protect their skills.

While bourgeois theorists such as William Petty and Adam Smith pointed out the advantages of the division of labor, it was Charles Babbage who, in 1832, first clearly laid out the principles of scientific management. After discussing the advantages of the division of labor, Babbage states:

That the master manufacturer, by dividing the work to be executed into different processes, each requiring different degrees of skill or of force, can purchase exactly that precise quantity of both which is necessary for each process; whereas, if the whole work were executed by one workman, that person must possess sufficient skill to perform the most difficult, and sufficient strength to execute the most laborious, of the operations into which the art is divided.[13]

For Babbage, management meant dividing up a craft into its smallest and simplest parts, so that the workers who can perform the task, can be hired as cheaply as possible in order to increase profits for the enterprise. However, it was more than 50 years after Babbage wrote that the first “experts” in management arose to formulate new theories and techniques. By the turn of the 20th century, not only had factories grown larger, but the era of free competition was giving way to monopoly capitalism and imperialism. As a result of these changes to the capitalist economy, there was an effort to systematically and purposely apply science to production. The theories of scientific management, developed by Frederick Taylor is not a science since it accepts the outlook of the capitalist with regard to production. Scientific management enters the workplace with the explicit purpose of subjecting labor to capitalist control.

The three basic principles of scientific management elaborated by Frederick Taylor are as follows:

the first principle is the gathering and development of knowledge of labor processes, and the second is the concentration of this knowledge as the exclusive province of management--together with its essential converse, the absence of such knowledge among the workers-then the third is the use of this monopoly over knowledge to control each step of the labor process and its mode of execution.[14]

For Braverman, there is no underestimating the effect of Taylorism on the labor process. It was not just about promoting efficiency, but developing the practice of managing workers in a capitalist society. Skilled crafts were systematically destroyed. The pride of workers in their jobs was stripped away and they were made into little more than cogs in an infernal machine. Trade unions and workers did resist the rise of Taylorism, but they were unable to stop its spread. The great creative power of human labor was reduced for tens of millions of workers to tasks as degrading as turning screws for hours, days, weeks, months, years and decades.

Science under capitalism is no longer a “neutral” force but becomes an adjunct to capital, aiding in disciplining the labor force. As Marx observed, the vast productive power of machines, created by human labor, was ultimately turned against their creators, becoming a force for their enslavement and alienation.

Scientific management is not limited to the factory or the assembly line, but spread to other branches of industry, whether in service, transport or administration. Just as Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film Modern Times showed the assembly-line worker ground under the iron heel of capital, one need only watch modern films such as Clerks, Office Space or Waiting... to see that scientific management and the debasement of labor is not ancient history, but remains embedded within the matrix of capitalism.

As Braverman describes it:

Thus, in the setting of antagonistic social relations, of alienated labor, hand and brain become not just separated, but divided and hostile, and the human unity of hand and brain turns into its opposite, something less than human.[15]

Yet Braverman says, the process of turning workers into “talking tools” (as the ancient Romans called their slaves) “is an incessant and unending process. The condition is repugnant to the victims, whether their pay is high or low, because it violates human conditions of work; and since the workers are not destroyed as human beings but are simply utilized in inhuman ways, their critical, intelligent, conceptual faculties, no matter how deadened or diminished, always remain in some degree a threat to capital.”[16] Capital is continually expanding, the means of production are always being revolutionized, new firms are rising while others decline and workers resist their own subordination. Yet no matter how much profit grows or how fine-tuned scientific management becomes, it is never enough. Capital needs to expand no matter what the cost may be to workers.

B. Monopoly Capital

Braverman, following the theories of monopoly capitalism developed by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy in Monopoly Capital, believed that a substantial change came over capitalism at the end of the 19th century. Braverman's book can be said to complete Baran and Sweezy's study in Monopoly Capital, which did not discuss the labor process. This neglect was recognized by Sweezy, who did praise Braverman for a “solidly successful effort to fill a large part of this gap”.[17] Our task here is not to offer an in-depth discussion or a critique of Baran/Sweezy's theory of monopoly capital -- that may be a subject for a future essay -- but to discuss what Braverman saw as the defining features of monopoly capital that shaped the modern working class.

According to the Baran/Sweezy thesis: at the end of the 19th century, competitive capitalism was transformed into monopoly capitalism with

the concentration and centralization of capital, in the form of the early trusts, cartels, and other forms of combination, began to assert itself; it was consequently then that the modem structure of capitalist industry and finance began to take shape. At the same time, the rapid completion of the colonization of the world and the international rivalries and armed clashes over the division of the globe into spheres of economic influence or dominance opened the modem imperialist era.[18]

These vast new enterprises now dominate whole branches of industry with monopolies, but they also have to manage greater numbers of workers. This outline of Monopoly Capital generally follows theories of imperialism developed earlier by Marxists in the 20th century, such as Nikolai Bukharin and V.I. Lenin.

As monopoly capitalism develops, the limits of the old competitive forms of enterprise are overcome with the emergence of the corporation. This allows capital to not be limited by personal fortunes or the capabilities of their owners or a small group of investors. With the development of the corporation, according to Braverman, the link is severed “between capital and its individual owner, and monopoly capitalism builds upon this form. Huge aggregates of capital may be assembled that far transcend the sum of the wealth of those immediately associated with the enterprise.”[19] With the growth of corporate power and the severance between ownership and management, a new stratum of managers is needed to administer these immense functions. Although managers largely come from a ruling-class background, capital is open to co-opting those with “talent” from below.

The modern corporation also follows the principles of scientific management, being subdivided among many departments that possess responsibility for different aspects of the production process: planning, research, production, work study, purchasing, marking, training, etc.[20]

Furthermore, marketing became the second major subdivision of the corporation, "subdivided in its turn among sales, advertising, promotion, correspondence, orders, commissions, sales analysis, and other such sections. At the same time, other functions of management were separated out to form entire divisions.”[21]

Advertising is needed to absorb the growing surplus. The corporation itself becomes an immense labyrinth of departments and sub-departments, with their own accountants and managers, seemingly divorced from the other, yet bound together in service to the bottom line of the company. Even the worst aspects of centrally planned economies don't match the organization of the modern corporation in their absurdity.

Braverman says that due to the great size of the corporation, management has become a vast hierarchy with many different levels that have the

purpose of control within the corporation, and conducted moreover as a labor process exactly analogous to the process of production, although it produces no product other than the operation and coordination of the corporation.[22]

The massive growth of corporations, as shown in the aftermath of World War II, highlights the need for coordination of production and society, in what is still an economy governed by the unplanned laws of competition.

Following Baran and Sweezy, Braverman believes that corporations have grown so productive that now big business can set high prices while cutting costs. This ultimately produces a state of stagnation in the capitalist economy. John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney outline the argument as follows:

the rise of the giant monopolistic (or oligopolistic) corporations had led to a tendency for the actual and potential investment-seeking surplus in society to rise. The very conditions of exploitation (or high price markups on unit labor costs) meant both that inequality in society increased and that more and more surplus capital tended to accumulate actually and potentially within the giant firms and in the hands of wealthy investors, who were unable to find profitable investment outlets sufficient to absorb all of the investment-seeking surplus. Hence, the economy became increasingly dependent on external stimuli such as higher government spending (particularly on the military), a rising sales effort, and financial expansion to maintain growth.[23]

Monopoly capitalism also leads to immense changes in the capitalist state. Due to the growth of economic surplus that cannot be easily absorbed, society grows more vulnerable to crises with roots in stagnation. Second, the vast expansion of capital “with respect to markets, materials, and investments---rapidly created a situation of economic competition which brought in its wake military clashes among capitalist countries.”[24] All of this creates the need for a war economy to absorb the economic surplus. While this may provide a temporary outlet for capital, it can lead to “regional” wars such as in Vietnam or to clashes between the major imperial powers, such as the first two world wars. Third, inside capitalist societies, there is the growth of poverty and insecurity alongside urbanization that private services are helpless to combat. This increases the need for government social programs ranging from welfare to prisons to education to cope.[25]

As we know from Louis Althusser, “the reproduction of labor power takes place essentially outside the enterprise"[26] through interpellation by the various Ideological state apparatuses: “one Ideological State Apparatus certainly has the dominant role, although hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent! This is the School.”[27] The ideology, inoculated through the schools -- produces people as subjects that can minimally function in capitalist society by performing their jobs, follow orders, read and write, and willingly accept their subordination.

The advent of monopoly capitalism not only brings changes in the labor process, the organization of capitalist firms and the state, but throughout all the aspects of society. Agriculture and the “idiocy of rural life”, which were once peripheral, are now subjected to the discipline of the market. The drive of industrialization and urbanization breaks down old modes of life. Domestic life changes as the pressures of family and earning a living compel women to enter the factories. The old handicraft industries crumble as mass production cheapens goods, which are promoted by advertisements. Independent incomes create a market that makes it easier for people to buy goods as opposed to producing them.[28] According to Braverman:

as the social and family life of the community are weakened, new branches of production are brought into being to fill the resulting gap; and as new services and commodities provide substitutes for human relations in the form of market relations, social and family life are further weakened. Thus it is a process that involves economic and social changes on the one side, and profound changes in psychological and affective patterns on the other.[29]

One of those “profound psychological patterns” is the emergence of “free time”, which is now dependent upon the market to fill that time with television shows, sports and all kinds of artificial wants. This is all manipulated by the market, which builds hype for the latest blockbuster or the newest clothing accessories. As Walter Benjamin once provocatively said, "Fashion prescribes the ritual according to which the commodity fetish demands to be worshiped."[30] No form of art or entertainment is allowed to escape the lustful eyes of the CEO. What was once “subversive”, “underground”, or a peculiar subculture is given mainstream status and subjected to the discipline of the market as soon as it proves to be profitable.

In monopoly capitalist society, real human and communal bonds break down, producing the mentality of dog-eat-dog and hyper-individualism. Yet there are many who can't function or get by in this society. They resort to crime or are deemed “hopelessly dependent”, “deficient” or “mentally ill.” The institutions created to deal with the downtrodden assume the “most barbarous and oppressive forms” ranging from government unemployment agencies, prisons and hospitals.[31] Yet for capital, all these morbid symptoms are accepted and praised as part of the “best of all possible worlds” since this creates a universal market where “the inhabitant of capitalist society is enmeshed in a web made up of commodity goods and commodity services from which there is little possibility of escape except through partial or total abstention from social life as it now exists.”[32]

As the totality of society is reshaped by the relentless march of capitalism, new industries are created to cater to new needs. These are the service industries such as restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, which can absorb new workers. Many of these new workers are women, who now “perform one of the functions they formerly exercised in the home, but now in the service of capital which profits from each day's labor”.[33] Many of the early forms of clerical work were likened to a craft, whether accounting or record keeping, filing, etc. However with the development of the modern corporation and the office manager, the principles of scientific management take hold here too.[34]

Office management develops as its own specialized branch with its own rituals, textbooks and methods. It is held by the office managers that “all forms of clerical work, not just routine or repetitive ones, could be standardized and ‘rationalized’”.[35] This “rationalization” can be seen in fields ranging from computer programming to cashiering, as mental labor on the part of the worker is reduced to a bare minimum with knowledge for the job guarded closely by management.[36]

As skills decline in these industries, they are increasingly filled with those who are paid less, such migrant workers and women of color. Monopoly capitalism winds up reducing “some two-thirds to three-fourths of the total, which appears readily to conform to the dispossessed condition of a proletariat.”[37] On top of this, labor grows more precarious with the threat of unemployment hanging over the heads of workers like a sword of Damocles

Other Marxist contemporaries of Braverman, such as Nicos Poulantzas, held that service workers were non-productive workers since they did not produce surplus value and were part of the petty-bourgeoisie due to their ideology and politics. For one, Poulantzas, in contrast to his own stated methodology, made political and ideological factors override the economic level. Furthermore, Poulantzas overstates the difference between productive and non-productive labor as criteria for determining who is a proletarian and petty bourgeoisie. For the capitalist, it doesn't matter whether someone is a steel worker, a janitor or a technician. Rather what matters according to Braverman,

is not the determinate form of the labor, but whether it has been drawn into the network of capitalist social relations, whether the worker who carries it on has been transformed into a wage-worker, and whether the labor of the worker has been transformed into productive labor-that is, labor which produces a profit for capital....Labor which is put to work in the production of goods is not thereby sharply divided from labor applied to the production of services, since both are forms of production of commodities, and of production on a capitalist basis, the object of which is the production not only of value-in-exchanve but of surplus value for the capitalist. The variety of determinate forms of labor may affect the consciousness, cohesiveness or economic and political activity of the working class, but they do not effect its existence as a class. The various forms of labor which produce commodities for the capitalist are all to be counted as productive labor. The worker who builds an office building and the worker who cleans it every night alike produce value and surplus value. Because they are productive for the capitalist, the capitalist allows them to work and produce; insofar as such workers are productive, society lives at their expense.[38]

In other words, surplus value is not just extracted from manual workers in mining, but from service workers in call centers or grocery stores, since all of them contribute to the accumulation of profit by the capitalists. Whatever differences may exist between a boilermaker and a cashier, they all belong to the same class.[39]

Despite the frightening view of capitalist control over the labor process presented by Braverman, he remains optimistic about the possibilities for working-class revolution inside the heartlands of capital:

I have every confidence in the revolutionary potential of the working classes of the so-called developed capitalist countries. Capitalism will not, over the long run, leave any choice to these classes, but will force upon them the fulfillment of the task which they alone can perform. This presupposes an enormous intensification of the pressures which have only just begun to bear upon the working class, but I think there is no question that it will happen. I have long tended to agree with those who think it will still be a long time in coming. But time is a social and historical concept, not a purely chronological one. When I look at the great changes that have occurred during the past ten or fifteen years, I believe I see this time passing rather more quickly than I used to think would be the case. In any event, historical time is difficult to forecast, and may be measured out in generations; it sets its own pace and not a pace to satisfy our wishes. But pass it will, whether rapidly or slowly, and bring in its train those explosive developments which for the past few decades have appeared limited to "other" parts of the world.[40]


A. Taylorism

Despite the overwhelmingly positively reception of Braverman's work, there are a number of criticisms have been raised that are worth engaging with. The first criticism involves Braverman’s describing Taylorism as a typical managerial strategy. Yet as the British Marxist David Renton observes, “as any number of academic experts in industrial relations have pointed out, Taylor's full strategy was only rarely adopted as a whole”.[41] In fact, managerial strategy has utilized a diverse number of methods, not all of them influenced by Taylor. Alongside Taylorism's time clock and motion studies, there are management strategies where workers consensually participate in their own exploitation.

Andrew Friedman says that managers will use despotic control alongside encouragement and consensus. Yet as Renton points out, those who criticize Braverman for insisting on the importance of Taylorism have not refuted his argument “that capitalism is a process out of which workers have increasingly been denied real control over their work”.[42] And there is of course a question of how far consent on the part of workers can go, and as we know, managers remain conscious of resistance, and are willing to offer concessions or to resort to direct coercion as needed.

Furthermore, Richard Edwards in a review of Labor and Monopoly Capital says that Braverman accepts the claims of Taylorism at face value, ignoring the ideological sources of his information, and that he neglected to look at the real labor process. Yet as Dan Clawson (another Marxist studying the labor process) counters, Braverman not only did describe the real labor process (as any reader of the book can observe), but that he “was particularly insightful in his ability to recognize what parts of Taylor's work were of real importance and what parts were simply ideology”.[43] Braverman was not so much concerned with the specifics of Taylorism, but how its introduction marked a crucial change in capitalist management strategies to control the labor process.

B. Women

Other criticisms have been leveled against Braverman from socialist-feminist or feminist perspectives, such as from Rosalyn Baxandall, Elizabeth Ewen and Linda Gordon. The three accuse Braverman of ignoring the experiences of working women and the issue of domestic unwaged reproduction done by housewives.[44] Braverman responded by pointing out that a consideration of housework fell outside the bounds of his study and that it is not actually as central to women's liberation as it appears on the surface:

On the contrary, it is the breakdown of the traditional household economy which has produced the present-day feminist movement. This movement in its modern form is almost entirely a product of women who have been summoned from the household by the requirements of the capital accumulation process, and subjected to experiences and stresses unknown in the previous thousands of years of household labor under a variety of social arrangements. Thus it is the analysis of this new situation that in my opinion occupies the place of first importance in the theory of modern feminism ... Thus I have the feeling that the most light will be shed on the totality of problems and issues embraced in the feminist movement, including those of household work, by an analysis that begins not with the forms of household work that have been practiced for thousands of years, but by their weakening and by the dissociation of an increasing number of women from them in the last few decades.[45]

Braverman's argument here rests on accepting that the role of the family has been fundamentally transformed under monopoly capitalism: with the functions of the family being taken over by institutions in society such as schools and hospitals. While there have been changes in the structure of the family, they are uneven. Women have entered the workforce in greater numbers and there is easier access to contraception and increasing divorce rates. Yet the family remains an important institution, in terms of reproducing the dominant social relations and ideology, which still depends on the subordination of women.[46]

Although Braverman, far more than many of his contemporaries, did make a sustained effort to discuss the experiences of women in his chapters on the service economy and the industrial reserve army, his analysis on the experience of women remain deficient.

C. Class struggle

The final objection to Braverman is far more serious: his neglect of the class struggle and changes in working-class consciousness. This was a criticism that Braverman recognized, stating that Marxism was not an academic pursuit, but a tool for combat. Yet it was his interest in class consciousness that caused Braverman to undertake this study. In fact, his whole analysis of Taylorism is built on the premise that craft workers will guard their skills and resist the encroachments of capital.

However, Braverman stated that his goal was to look at the “working class as a class in itself, not as a class for itself”.[47] In order for him to discuss the current state of class consciousness, Braverman said it was necessary to satisfy two conditions:

first, as a clear picture of the class in its present conditions of existence is formed by patient and realistic investigation; and second, as experience begins to accumulate of the sort which will teach us to better understand the state of mind and modes of struggle of this class.[48]

Having undertaken a concrete investigation of the state of working class as a class “in itself” Braverman actually enriches our understanding of class struggle. He laid the necessary ground work, knowing that others would build upon his work to look at the struggles and consciousness of the workers as a class “for itself”.

Working class today

A. Consciousness and forms of struggle

That means it is our task as revolutionaries, to pick up where Braverman left off. To that end, we will offer some preliminary sketches (not final verdicts) on the following three questions: how should we understand class consciousness? What are some forms of working class resistance? What is the state of the US working class today? All of these questions will help us to understand how relevant Braverman's study is for class struggles today.

When it comes to understanding the dynamics of class consciousness, Braverman offers a few points that we should follow in our investigation. Braverman mainly looks at class not as a subjective “making” (favored by Marxist historians such as E.P. Thompson), but rather deals with changes in the labor process and the composition in the current state of the working class, which is determined by the social relations of production that extract surplus labor. Yet Braverman says that even though the objective is primary to defining a class, ultimately:

a class cannot exist in society without in some degree manifesting a consciousness of itself as a group with common problems, interests, and prospects--although this manifestation may for long periods be weak, confused, and subject to manipulation by other classes.[49]

Therefore, when looking at the working class, we should expect to find uneven levels of consciousness that range from a minority who may be influenced by socialist/communist ideas and others who are proud white supremacists or support capitalism wholehearted along, with a majority in-between. Most working-class people will probably not possess a single coherent ideology or conception of the world, but a mixture of many that are absorbed in fragmentary and contradictory ways.

For instance, workers may support trade unions and oppose foreign military intervention, but be a dedicated member of the Republican Party. Another worker could be a self-described socialist who proudly waves the Stars and Stripes. All these ideas contribute to people refusing to challenge their oppression and capitalism, but to accept them as natural. To them, the reigning social order and its values appear as just “common sense”. The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci defines common sense as “a conception which even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential, in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is.”[50] It is important to recognize that common sense is not a rational or coherent view of the world, but accepts all kinds of myths and beliefs as “natural” such as “blacks are lazy” and “workers should not be mistreated on the job”. All of these views mix in with other elements that are reactionary, but others that may contain the seeds of socialist or communist consciousness.

Due to how ingrained bourgeois hegemony and “common sense” is among people, they cannot always be combated with rational ideas or a better argument.

However prevalent “common sense” may be among workers, this does not prevent class struggle from erupting. The working class, as the source of the profit for the capitalist class, is compelled to rebel against low wages, unsafe conditions, long hours and the sheer alienating nature of work. As Marx and Engels said:

It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organization of bourgeois society today.[51]

For example, the sight of scabs crossing a picket line can cause even a diehard a Republican Party worker to violently attack them for violating the basic rules of solidarity.

Due to the constant of class struggle in society, with workers’ uneven levels of consciousness, there have always been brush fires of resistance (some of it unseen). There are all kinds of individualized forms of resistance and “social contracts” between workers on the job to resist the boss and to make work as bearable as possible. For millions of workers, this is only natural because when you are on the clock, you are not free, you belong to someone else and are a disposable person.

On the job, even the most studious worker will find a way to slack off once in a while. Sometimes a worker comes back a little late from lunch and hopes that no one notices. Maybe you goof off or horseplay with a friend in another department in order to bring joy into the day. Sometimes you steal from the company to get back a few scraps that were originally taken from you. Maybe you'd flaunt the rules of the job by sitting down at a cash register even though you were told to stand. Or buy a coke to drink at your station even though you weren't supposed to have a drink. Or your boss just yelled at you for not working fast enough, so you spit in their coffee.

All of this is a normal part of the working day, that capitalists have to deal with, but these forms of struggle can be done in protest of hours being cut, a friend laid off or the imposition of new draconian rules.[52] All of these unconscious forms of class struggle are in response to a system that steals our labor and makes it inhuman. These forms of resistance can be likened to what E.P. Thompson considered the “moral economy” of the working class. Workers protest their exploitation in order to affirm their traditional rights that have been violated.[53]

However, the struggle takes other conscious forms as well. These can range from sabotage, slowdowns, restricting output, labor union organizing, strikes, creating mutual-aid societies, forming socialist and communist parties, workers’ councils, and even revolutions.[54] While the United States has never had a revolution, it has seen class struggles as fierce as any in the industrialized world, such as strikes of 1877, Haymarket in 1886 and the CIO unionization drives of the1930s, along with high levels of state repression against working-class organizers. Through these struggles, workers have been won to revolutionary ideas and the need to challenge the capitalist system.

B. US working class

Some may say that Braverman writes on ancient history and now we live in a post-industrial age where industrial workers no longer feature prominently. Others, under the cover of “Marxism”, may even claim that the US working class either doesn't exist or is so privileged and bought off due to exploiting workers throughout the Third World that it is incapable of fighting back. We cannot offer in-depth answers or a complete portrait of the working class here, rather just some brief points will be made.

Today, the manufacturing sector no longer forms a majority of the labor force in the United States, in fact more than 75 percent workers are in the service sector, with nearly half of them in office-related jobs. Yet as Joan Greenbaum, a former office worker and professor of computer information systems at CUNY, observes, white-collar workers have seen the growth of their sector slow down with their jobs now offering “lower wages and more part-time slots have picked up”.[55] White-collar workers in fields such as programming, secretaries and education have seen their jobs subjected to the same techniques of scientific management with the development of new technology such as computers, the internet and cellphones. The end result is white-collar and service workers suffer rationalization and deskilling, alongside outsourcing and temporary employment – as capital gains control of the workplace to increase profits.

While de-industrialization has occurred in the United States, we would do well to look at it as the greater rationalization of industry to ensure more production with fewer workers. According to Chris Harman in his book, Zombie Capitalism:

Even after the recession of 2001-2 had led to a massive rationalisation of industry, with the loss of about one in six manufacturing jobs, the industrial working class had far from disappeared. Industrial production in 2007 was 8 per cent higher than in 2000 and 30 per cent higher than in 1996 ...The small decline in the total industrial workforce is not because industry has become less important, but because productivity per employee in industry has risen more quickly than in ‘services’. Slightly fewer manufacturing workers are producing many more goods than three decades ago. The industrial workers are as important for the capitalist economy today as in the early 1970s.[56]

In other words, there is still an industrial working class, alongside service workers, within the United States that makes up a majority of the population.

US workers are not, in their majority, well-off. A brief look at the period before the Great Recession of 2007-8 can illuminate this. From 1970 to 2003, GDP tripled (adjusted for inflation) from $3.7 to $10.8 trillion. During this time, hourly wage and income figures either stagnated or decreased (from $8.99 to $8.29), while the earnings of CEOs increased.[57] In 1970, CEOs earned 49 times as much as an average wage earner. By 2000, that ratio had increased to 2173 to 1.

Not only have the rich grown richer, but the poor have lost out. In 1952, corporate taxes amounted to 32% of all federal tax receipts. By 2003, corporate taxes amounted to 7.4% of tax receipts. From 2001 to 2003, 82 of the most profitable corporations made $102 billion in pretax profits and should have paid $35.6 billion (considering the 35% corporate tax rate). Due to neoliberalism, the wealthy classes are able to avoid paying taxes and increase their profits and power. This growth in ruling-class power has been accompanied by a concerted assault on the working class since the 1970s that has slashed the social safety net and caused a sharp decline in unionization.[58]

The Great Recession revealed some of the underlying fault lines of inequality and class power in the United States. The crisis in the global financial system saw the loss of trillions of dollars and tens of millions of jobs. Yet the US government has handed over trillions in bailouts to the wealthiest 1%, while millions of workers have received little or no relief. According to the Washington Post, since the “recovery” began, more than 95% of income gains have gone to the top 1%.[59] While there has been job growth in the US since the recession, it is in low-wage sectors where workers earn an average of 23% less than their previous jobs.[60]

Far from being affluent, the United States is the most unequal advanced industrialized capitalist country. According to a study released by Political Blindspot in 2013, close to 50 million Americans live below the poverty line, with close to 80% near poverty or below it. This was only slightly mitigated by government programs such as food stamps. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Blacks and Hispanics were more likely than Whites and Asians to be among the working poor. In 2011, 13.3% of Blacks and 12.9% of Hispanics were among the working poor, compared with 6.1% of Whites and 5.4% of Asians.”[61]

With an extreme disparity in wealth and power, a recovery that has benefited very few and a government, whether Democratic or Republican Party, committed to maintaining the reigning state of affair, we must conclude: the system is not broken, but rather that it is working exactly as it was designed to. All of this points to the fact that class struggle and the possibilities for revolution remain present within the United States.


Braverman's work put the spotlight back on the labor process and he laid bare the methods of scientific management used to control workers. Labor and Monopoly Capital is not just a work of history, political economy or sociology, but a tool which helps us to understand not only the dynamics of capital on the job and throughout society. It should be a vital part of debates on working-class consciousness and revolutionary strategy.


[1] For background on Braverman, see Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), 4-6 and Alan Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 298-300.

[2] Braverman 1974, 3.

[3] Ibid. 57.

[4] Ibid. x.

[5] Karl Marx, “German Ideology,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[6] Karl Marx, “Kapital Volume One,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Karl Marx, “Kapital Volume Three,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[9] Braverman 1974, 35-6.

[10] Ibid. 41.

[11] Ibid. 50.

[12] Ibid. 57.

[13] Ibid. 55.

[14] Ibid. 82.

[15] Ibid. 87.

[16] Ibid. 96.

[17] Quoted in ibid. xxv.

[18] Ibid. 175.

[19] Ibid. 179.

[20] Ibid. 181.

[21] Ibid. 183.

[22] Ibid. 186.

[23] John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, The Endless Crisis: How Monopoly-Finance Capital Produces Stagnation and Upheaval from the USA to China (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012), 11.

[24] Braverman 1974, 198.

[25] Ibid. 197-99.

[26] Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism (New York: Verso Books, 2014), 49.

[27] Ibid. 251.

[28] Braverman 1974, 191.

[29] Ibid. 192.

[30] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 18.

[31] Braverman 1974, 194.

[32] Ibid. 194.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid. 207.

[35] Ibid. 213.

[36] Ibid. 230.

[37] Ibid. 279.

[38] See ibid. 254 and 284.

[39] This section is borrowed from my Nicos Poulantzas: State, Class and the Transition to Socialism (forthcoming).

[40] Braverman 1974, 315.

[41] David Renton, Dissident Marxism: Past Voices for Present Times (New York: Zed Books, 2004),176.

[42] Ibid. 177.

[43] Dan Clawson, Bureaucracy and the Labor Process: The Transformations of US Industry, 1860-1920 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980), 31-2.

[44] Marlene Dixon, “Monopoly Capitalism and the Women’s Movement,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[45] Braverman 1974, 311-2.

[46] Renton 2004, 178.

[47] Braverman 1974, 18.

[48] Ibid. 314.

[49] Ibid. 20-1.

[50] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 419. This whole paragraph on common sense is drawn from my “Gramsci for communists”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

[51] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The Holy Family,” Marxists Internet Archive.

[52] For more on “work as play” see Martin Glaberman and Seymour Faber, Working for Wages: The Roots of Insurgency (Dix Hills: General Hill Inc., 1998.), 97-118. Glaberman, a former autoworker, makes the following important observation on how workers are initiated to the unwritten rules of the job:

After they enter a factory, workers find out about one another: who is glib and good at negotiating, who is strong and brave and good at blocking a plant gate or beating up a scab, who is astute as a tactician, who is a public speaker, etc. Workers also find out about the work process and the equipment: it is there to control them but it is always possible to turn the tables. In production on an individual machine, the worker finds out what makes it run. The same elementary investigation also tells him what makes it stop running. So the worker is able to have the machine running as smoothly as possible to make the work more manageable - or he can arrange for the machine to break down when be needs an extra break or is harassing a foreman.

See Martin Glaberman and George P. Rawick, “The American Economy,” in Work and Society, ed. Mary M. Robinson, Bruce C. Levine and Martin Glaberma (Detroit: Wayne State University, 2010), 205.

[53] See also Clawson 1980, who recounts the resistance of craft workers to deskilling.

[54] See Glaberman and Faber 1998, 59-96.

[55] This paragraph, including figures is drawn from Joan Greenbaum, Windows on the Workplace: Technology, Jobs and the Organization of Office Work (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004) 12.

[56] Chris Harman, Zombie Capitalism (London: Bookmarks, 2009), 332-4.

[57] For some recent figures on the gap between CEOs and workers, see the following article:

Lawrence Mishel and Alyssa Davis, “Top CEOs Make 300 Times More than Typical Workers,” Economic Policy Institute.

[58] Figures drawn from Michael Perelman, “Some Economics of Class,” Monthly Review 58 no 8 (July-August 2006): 18-28.

Also see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[59] Dylan Matthews, “How the 1 percent won the recovery, in one table,” The Washington Post.

See also Michael Yates, “The Great Inequality,” Monthly Review.

[60] Shannon Stapleton, "U.S. jobs rose since '08 crisis, but pay is 23 pct less: report," Reuters.

See also, Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, “Plight of the US Working Class,” Monthly Review.

[61] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “A Profile of the Working Poor, 2011.”

For more on how racial oppression effects poverty and oppression in the United States, along with insights on how to fight white supremacy, see Jeff B. Perry, “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy,” Cultural Logic (2011)

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